Vermont Bar Journal
Winter 2008 - #9.
Collecting Fees for Solos and Small Firms
The Vermont Bar Journal #176, Volume 34, No. 4 WINTER 2008
Collecting Fees for Solos and Small Firmsby Deborah T. Bucknam, Esq.Attorneys who practice litigation as sole practitioners or in small firms often face the daunting task of collecting overdue fees. Their clients are frequently individuals for whom legal fees are a necessary but unwelcome burden. Moreover, if attorneys have already provided services to their clients, paying the fees for past services is often last on the list of a financially strapped individual's budget. If the litigation involves family matters, there are additional financial pressures that make paying attorneys fees an even lower priority. There are, however, techniques that can result in more successful collections and happier clients.
In order to collect fees successfully, an attorney must adopt a philosophy-and educate his or her staff-that providing information about fees and a client's responsibility to pay fees is part of the service an attorney provides to the client, not an unpleasant subject to be avoided. In order to represent a client properly, an attorney should not only provide legal services, but also supply detailed information about fees at the beginning of representation, provide regular, transparent billing information during the course of representation, and promptly discuss any overdue fees with the client.
When clients come into an attorney's office, they are often feeling anxious and intimidated. Providing information about fees, just like providing information about other aspects of the client's case, reduces a client's anxiety. Similarly, as representation continues, providing information on a regular basis about the cost of the client's case eases a client's apprehension and results in a better working relationship between an attorney and his or her client.
Translating this philosophy into a method of providing fee information and collecting fees takes some effort. Here are some practical tips concerning billing and collection of fees.
Initial consultations can be the bread and butter of a small litigation law practice. It is inadvisable to offer a free initial consultation for litigation services, other than for contingency fee cases, for a variety of reasons. First, an attorney who offers free initial consultation attracts clients who either are unwilling or unable to pay for legal services. Second, an attorney, by providing free initial consultation, is conveying the message that his or her advice has no value. Third, clients who are not paying for a consultation often take up more time than clients who know they are paying for an attorney's time. Fourth, if clients who do not pay for an initial consultation do retain the firm, they have already received the message that fees are not an important part of the relationship, and the attorney may have future difficulty collecting fees from those clients. A free initial consultation does not attract paying clients; it attracts people who want and expect free legal advice. The same caveats apply to free advice over the telephone, with the...